canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Catherine Hanrahan

Catherine Hanrahan’s moving and gritty first novel, Lost Girls and Love Hotels, explores Japan’s sexy and sinister margins as it traces a young woman’s painful journey into the past. Margaret works as an instructor at Air-Pro Stewardess Training Institute by day and drinks and doses herself into a alcoholic coma every night. As Margaret’s deliberates her mentally ill brother’s fate back in Canada and wonders about the missing Western girl in Tokyo, her own self-destructive impulses lead her to the two things she fears most: love and self-discovery.

Hanrahan talks with fellow novelist Ibi Kaslik about the trials of a first novel and what happens when your main character is hell-bent on self-immolation. 

(Oct. 2006)


IK: I have always had this sense about Japanese culture that it’s really opaque; no matter how much literature you read or how much you try to understand its ways, there is something completely inaccessible about it to foreigners, more so than any other cultures. You really capture absurdity and this sense of alienation well in Lost Girls and Love Hotels. When writing your novel, how did you approach writing about this ineffable gap between cultures?

CH: I think that no matter how long a westerner stays in Japan—no matter how well they master the language and the cultural niceties—they can never shake the sense that they are on the outside looking in. This feeling of being on the fringe lent itself perfectly to the story I wanted to write. What’s going on around the protagonist—her situation in Tokyo—mirrors her emotional state—dislocated, scattered, foreign.

As for cultural differences, I tried to remember how strange Tokyo felt to me when I first arrived—the weird experience of Japan filtered through the

slightly jaded eyes of a newbie. So a lot of the time—especially at the beginning of the book, Margaret isn’t very "culturally sensitive." Tokyo is very intense sensory overload at first and I tried to have the reader’s experience reflect that. I never tried to portray Tokyo in a Japanophilic-Zen gardens and geisha and koto music kind of way. (although the subtly and elegance of Japan starts to permeate the story in a sneaky sort of way—like gas filling a room.)

IK: There is an undercurrent of violence and darkness to Lost Girls that gives the book a very noir feel. How does violence fit in with the overall themes in your work?

I’ve done a lot of traveling—mostly on my own—and I’ve been lucky to have never encountered any serious mishaps. But I’m always aware—especially when I find myself on a bus full of men in the middle of a desert in India or somewhere—that danger and violence are always lurking somewhere nearby. So when I write I often approach a story from a worst case scenario perspective. What would happen if the worst thing possible happened? I’m also kind of obsessed with the way cities look at night and very early in the morning—so much so that editors have asked specifically for more daytime scenes. One of my favourite things to do is get up before sunrise and watch a foreign city wake up. You go from a lonely sinister dark to a very quiet opening up—a beginning. I like that to be the trajectory of my stories.

IK: There is a great sadness in Lost Girls that, at times, made it hard for me to continue reading. Margaret's self-destructive impulses, her psycho-sexual side and her alcoholism are haunting and painfully well drawn. She really manifests the psychological tenet that ‘anger turned inwards becomes depression.’ I know that for me, with IK:

CH: Well, I had the ending in mind when I started writing—so I knew that Margaret would be okay. What was hard was the feeling that I was pushing the story and Margaret toward darker and darker places and sometimes it felt like :"How the hell and I going to get her back from the edge?" Margaret has a line in the book—"I like to stay on the low end of emotional experience. That way rock-bottom is close to home." I finally realized that once she did hit rock bottom there was nowhere else for her to go but up.

IK: Can you talk to me about the process of developing and editing this book?

CH: Well I have a rather weird story about the initial editing that I did before sending it out to agents. I’d written the novel very slowly and methodically from beginning to end with very little editing. When I had my first draft I was pretty happy with it but I knew that structurally it was "off" somehow. But I had no idea how to fix it. I ended up leaving it for about two months. I was stuck. Towards the end of that time, I did a ten-day silent meditation course. I wasn’t thinking about the novel at all really, but when I returned home I turned on my computer and totally overhauled the novel. Tore out chapters completely, moved stuff around and wrote an additional ten pages. It took three hours. Well, a hundred hours sitting cross-legged and three hours typing.

IK: How has it been received in the public, the literary world and by your friends/family?

CH: I was really worried about my parents reading the book. I was afraid they’d be shocked or embarrassed—but they really appreciated it. Everyone wants to think that Margaret is really me and that it all really happened, but I guess that’s typical for debut novels. It’s not about me but it sprang from my imagination—so it’s a bit like laying out your dark side for the world to see.

So far the press reviews have been very good. I’ve had emails and myspace messages from everyone from goth teenagers to a porn actress telling me they loved the book.

IK: What are you working on now?

CH: I’m working on a second novel. This one has a male protagonist and is set in Southeast Asia. And yes, I will be meditating on this one too.

Ibi Kaslik is the author of the critically acclaimed novel "Skinny".







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.